Aged 16, Sameer has endured more terror than most adults will ever know.
Six months of forced conscription with the Taliban back home in the Afghan province of Kunduz, by his own account. A death-defying escape, alone at age 14, through Iran, that included border guards shooting at him. Squeezing into a packed refugee boat from Turkey to Greece, and hiding himself on trains across most of Europe, until he finally staggered, last December, into the town of Calais — a sodden patch of bush and sand on France’s northern coast, across the Channel from Britain.
Nine months on, however, the final leg of the journey to the U.K. is proving the hardest of all—a daunting hurdle that marks Calais as the end of the line for many refugees, and in many respects, a microcosm of the legal and political morass at the center of the world’s biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
Slender, with a dimpled smile and a mop of unruly hair, the boy has spent more than two of his teenage years drifting solo across the globe. Yet he is still trying to reach his brother and uncle in London, by sneaking aboard cargo trucks headed across the Channel, in a nightly death-defying game of chicken with French and British police. “I have tried countless times,” he says with a wry laugh, speaking via a translator as he curled up on a mat in a small donated recreational vehicle parked in Calais’ unofficial refugee camp known as the “jungle.”
He says French police fired teargas canisters at him during his attempt the night before. Like other young refugees in Calais, he agreed to talk on condition his real name was not used, for fear of complicating his chances for asylum. The night we spoke, an icy wind howled and rain pummeled the roof of his temporary home. He said the fierce weather could mean fewer police, and slower traffic—better conditions, perhaps, to slip past 12-foot barbed-wire fences and three border checkpoints. “When we first came last winter it was so much easier,” he says. “Now, it is very, very difficult.”
On Monday, world leaders gathered in New York for the U.N. global summit on refugees and migrants and will try to tackle the biggest exodus in generations—a staggering 65 million people displaced from their homes across the planet. The one-day program includes speeches about the “root causes” and “drivers of migration.” President Obama will hold a second summit on Tuesday specifically on the subject of refugees, in an attempt to push leaders into greater commitments. But few are counting on success; negotiations have already stalled over which countries should shoulder major responsibility for refugees, with officials warning on Monday that it could take two more years to reach an agreement.
For the young teenagers in Calais’ so-called “jungle,” that is time they no longer have.
Amid the sprawl of leaky tents and rickety shelters staked into the mud, conditions here are dire. The British aid organization Help Refugees on Monday estimated the number of refugees in Calais at more than 10,188, with 1,022 or them unaccompanied minors younger than 18—a spike of about 51% above numbers counted in August, it said. French officials dispute the number, estimating Calais’ refugees at about 7,000, of which 1,500 women and children or so sleep in government-sanctioned containers.
The rest are crammed in about 1.5 square miles of scrub, with no electricity or plumbing. The driving rainstorm during my visit last Friday was a mild foretaste of the gnawing winter closing in on northern Europe. Since Britain and France have declared the jungle an illicit migrant settlement, rather than a refugee camp, there are no U.N. relief organizations here, unlike the camps in Greece, Jordan and elsewhere. Legally, the jungle does not exist.
There is chronic overcrowding, and there are shortages of donated food, shoes, toilet paper, water, firewood—in fact, of everything. Volunteers from Care4Calais, a 10-month-old British relief group, pick their way through the dirt tracks every afternoon, handing out coupons to refugees, which they can exchange for limited quantities of items like toothpaste, toilet paper, razors and clothes, donated by well-wishers in France and Britain.
Now even those relief efforts could be under threat. On Sept. 7, Britain announced it would shortly build a 13-foot wall in Calais to stop refugees crossing the Channel illegally. And French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve declared that France intends to demolish the entire encampment soon, and disburse the refugees to small centers across France. In March, French officials demolished the southern half of the camp, in an effort to cut the numbers in Calais. It resulted instead in greater overcrowding, with more people than ever squeezed into the remaining area.
Aid groups warn the strategy is doomed; in fact, several French mayors have stated they will not willingly accept the refugees. “People will come back, and the police will need to chase them day after day,” says Alexandra Simmons, a team leader for Care4Calais, who has worked in the jungle since February. “This is going to be violent, for sure,” she predicts. “People won’t stay in government centers. They are determined to go to the U.K.”
So determined are they, some are prepared to take deadly risks. Hours before TIME arrived in Calais last Friday, an unnamed 14-year-old Afghan boy was killed falling off a truck he had sneaked aboard near the entrance to the Channel, in a desperate attempt to make it to England. Witnesses told relief workers another driver struck the boy after he fell, killing him in a hit-and-run accident. It was the 13th death so far this year of people trying to sneak into Britain from Calais. Like Sameer, he was trying to reach a brother and uncle in London.
Tragically, those deaths should not occur—at least in terms of the law. Under the U.K’s so-called Dubs Amendament, named for the British peer Lord Alf Dubs who has championed the refugee cause, the U.K. Parliament last May granted unaccompanied minors younger than 18 the right to asylum in Britain, even if they do not have any close relatives in the country. Those with relatives in Britain, like Sameer and the dead boy, are also entitled to be transferred to Britain from Calais, under the international so-called Dublin rules governing migrants.
In practice, however, migrants and volunteers say the system has all but ground to a halt. Refugees say months of delays and bureaucratic demands that are almost impossible to meet have left them deeply skeptical that there is any legal path to asylum. Sameer, for example, is required to provide his original identity documents, which he says his mother has been unable to send from Kunduz. Almost all the teenage refugees arrive without documents—leaving officials to guess their age, or take their word for it.
As the bleak light faded on Friday evening, five teenagers from Eritrea squeezed into another recreational vehicle, out of a rainstorm, and described their harrowing odysseys through the Sahara, into Libya, and across the Mediterranean in overpacked boats to Europe, where they are still—many months after arriving in Calais—attempting to reach Britain. Most said they had no relatives there; they are, in the jungle’s parlance, “Dubs kids”—vulnerable children who are, in theory, eligible to be resettled in Britain.
But the delays seem literally interminable. “I arrived in the jungle 11 months ago,” says 15-year-old Aron (not his real name), who appears far younger, in his cropped trousers and sandals. Aron arrived in Calais with no proof of identity, since he lost his only document—a school card—in the Sahara, he says. One of five children, he says he fled Eritrea’s long military conscription, and that his older brother has advised him not to settle anywhere but Britain.
Despite the dismal conditions in the Calais jungle, there is a widespread belief among the teenage refugees that the U.K. is far more welcoming than France—an impression underscored in the minds of jungle residents by months of teargas battles in Calais with French police. “It is so difficult here, but my brother says I must go to England. So I have to keep trying,” Aron says.
He is not alone in facing intense difficulties. Across Europe, hundreds of thousands of people are trapped in various forms of legal purgatory, waiting for labyrinthine asylum procedures to take their course, or scrambling to find legal loopholes, while governments argue over how many of them they will accept as refugees.
As darkness fell on the jungle, a relief volunteer’s mobile phone rang in the jungle’s makeshift Eritrean church—an impressive structure with a belfry and tall steeple hammered together from scraps of wood and plastic sheeting. Three teenage Eritrean girls had been arrested by French police on a train from Germany. Since they were underage, the police did not arrest them, but instead dropped them at a train station and left them to find their own way to Calais. Aid workers picked them up at Calais station late Friday night.
The girls’ journey underscored how difficult it might be during the coming months for French and British officials to stop thousands trying to cross to Britain from Calais, despite the risks. On the blustery, cold Friday night, Aron and his Eritrean friends plotted that night’s attempt—just the latest in the countless number of failed crossings to Britain. Friday night’s run failed too, and they returned to the jungle. But having lost so much, and come so far, turning back home—or anywhere else, for that matter—seems a far-off option to them.
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